No, Koalas are not ‘functionally extinct,’ but that doesn’t mean they’re okay
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A viral Forbes article claiming that koalas have become "functionally extinct" and that 80% of their habitat has been destroyed by Australia's devastating bushfires made its way around social media this weekend.

The problem is, it's not totally true.


Several ecology experts have responded to the article, pointing out that the koala situation in Australia is not that straightforward. The primary source for the "functionally extinct" claim in the Forbes article was the Australia Koala Foundation (AKF), an organization that advocates for the protection and conservation of koalas and their habitats. The functionally extinct designation generally means that an animal's population has dwindled to the point where they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population is no longer viable. AKF first announced that koalas may be functionally extinct back in May, but koala researchers and scientists say that its inaccurate to paint the koala population with that broad of a brush.

RELATED: When some koalas needed friends, these farmers stepped up.

"I do not believe koalas are functionally extinct—yet," Rebecca Johnson, a koala geneticist at the Australian Museum, told CNET. "That said, the fires are likely to have had a huge impact on what we know are some extremely valuable populations who are important for the long term survival of the species."

Dr. Christine Adams-Hosking, a koala expert at the University of Queensland, told Australia's SBS News, "In ecology it's always grey—there's never black and white, because koalas are very hard to track and count. But to say they're functionally extinct all over Australia, you can't possibly say that, because in some places they're doing well—in some places they're over-abundant."

The numbers offered by the AKF in the Forbes article are not definitively backed up by science. Adams-Hosking told SBS that recent expert estimates suggest that there are between 120,000 and 300,000 koalas in Australia—significantly more than the 80,000 count provided by AKF. It's not clear where AKF got the statistic that 80% of koala habitat has been destroyed, though the bushfires certainly are reeking havoc on the species, and that may be true in some specific areas. Hundreds of koalas have been killed in the fires, with heartbreaking and dramatic rescue stories making the news.

Adams-Hosking is clear about the dangers facing the cuddly creatures, but she's also clear about the importance of using scientific methods to gather data and make the most accurate statements about their status. The problem is, in an era of 24/7 breaking news headlines, actual science is comparably slow—and remarkably unsexy. When you add politics into the mix, not-totally-accurate stories sourced from not-total-experts can easily overpower the more measured voice of scientific research.

As Adams-Hosking pointed out to New Scientist, AKF's claims were made on the eve of elections in Australia. The environment and climate change are big issues, and AKF is an advocacy group that has been pushing politicians to take action. Hyperbole is a hallmark of politics, but is anathema to science. When the two overlap in reporting, this is what we get.

"There's a lot of politics going on, and somehow the koala gets involved," said Adams-Hosking.

So are koalas okay or not? The problem with stories like the Forbes article is that they cause people who are concerned about the environment to react strongly and share with passion. Then articles like those referenced above come out, causing people who think environmental concerns are overblown to say, "See? They're wrong! It's debunked! It's fake news!" But reality is always more complex than simple headlines or single stories, and the truth often lies somewhere between polarized extremes.

RELATED: Australia wanted tourists to forget climate change is a thing. It backfired.

The overall outlook is that koala populations vary throughout Australia—they are in danger of extinction in some areas, while overpopulating others. But deforestation due to farming and urbanization is an ongoing threat to koalas, who rely on eucalyptus trees for food. The recent bushfires in Australia haven't helped. Without protection they will continue to lose habitat and populations will remain threatened.

Climate change has also begun playing a role in koala population decline, as extreme weather accelerates and heatwaves become more common in Australia. Koalas can handle some heat, but they can't survive in sustained high temperatures. In urban areas, koalas also face dangers from people's pet dogs and from drivers hitting them with cars. But the biggest threat remains land loss from deforestation and habitat loss.

"They just can't live without forest, it's that simple," Adams-Hosking said. "Unless you get serious about protecting their habitat, nothing will change."

So yes, even though koalas aren't all going extinct, they are in trouble. Let's work on protecting them and all other species that are threatened by human activity. At the same time, let's make sure we turn to scientists for science and advocacy groups for advocacy. We need both, but we have to be careful about who we get statistics from and who we rely on for facts when we're sharing stories.

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
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When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

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Dr. David McPhee offers advice for talking to someone living in a different time in their head.

Few things are more difficult than watching a loved one's grip on reality slipping away. Dementia can be brutal for families and caregivers, and knowing how to handle the various stages can be tricky to figure out.

The Alzheimer's Association offers tips for communicating in the early, middle and late stages of the disease, as dementia manifests differently as the disease progresses. The Family Caregiver Alliance also offers advice for talking to someone with various forms and phases of dementia. Some communication tips deal with confusion, agitation and other challenging behaviors that can come along with losing one's memory, and those tips are incredibly important. But what about when the person is seemingly living in a different time, immersed in their memories of the past, unaware of what has happened since then?

Psychologist David McPhee shared some advice with a person on Quora who asked, "How do I answer my dad with dementia when he talks about his mom and dad being alive? Do I go along with it or tell him they have passed away?"

McPhee wrote:

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!